A world role for Britain slips away

By Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 17/08/08):

Another August, another unforeseen international crisis. Certainly Britain was caught napping. As the seriousness of Russia’s subjugation of Georgia became apparent, President Sarkozy zoomed around the capitals and brought about a ceasefire. While the United States was powerless to prevent the humiliation of its ally, President Bush issued threats against Moscow, Condoleezza Rice headed for Tbilisi and America poured aid into the devastated areas. Britain was invisible.

David Miliband, the foreign secretary, once remarked, when Tony Blair was still prime minister, that we would miss him once he had been replaced by Gordon Brown. Well, I certainly do. If Blair were still in office the United Kingdom would have been more evident and effective during this crisis. Somehow he would have ignored the fact that France holds the presidency of the European Union and would have discovered a role for himself and his country.

Blair’s detractors will say that was precisely his problem. He could not resist embroiling us in foreign policy adventures, cutting a dash way beyond what Britain merited or could sustain. For the majority in his own party, Iraq was the ultimate demonstration of Blair’s hubris and it brought him down.

That hostile analysis of Blair leaves out important points. The Iraq war was disastrous during his premiership, but it did not stop him winning the 2005 election with a good majority. The war became unpopular, but Blair’s conduct of it left us in no doubt that he was a leader. He knew what he wanted and stuck to it courageously. Like Margaret Thatcher before him, he made it impossible for any opposition leader to compete. More speculatively, I believe that most voters liked to think that Britain was a significant force in the world, even if we paid a price for playing such a conspicuous part.

Brown looks indecisive. He has been tossed about in the economic storm and seems to steer no clear course. If he made more of foreign policy he might appear more resolute even if his domestic policy continues to slither about. With Iraq, Blair established a reputation for leadership that could not be shaken even when he made U-turns at home.

To the frustration of those in the Labour party who put their hopes in Brown, his domestic policy – whether in the reform of public services or the reduction of civil liberties – looks Blairite. The big change, in response to his party, has come in foreign policy. It is not just that he has kept his distance from Bush. Britain has fallen generally silent and our role in Iraq has been minimised.

Only recently has it become clear that in the battle for Basra earlier this year British troops remained aloof while Iraqi and American forces overwhelmed the Mahdi Army, followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Apparently Britain had done a deal with the Shi’ite group. According to some reports, senior US officers and the Iraqi government have now lost faith in British forces.

It is highly unlikely that Blair would have allowed such a situation to arise. His guiding principle was that Washington should know always that it could count on its British allies. It is an unfortunate epitaph on British involvement in Iraq – given how many soldiers have been killed or terribly wounded – that we began well and ended badly, while the Americans started badly and are finishing well.

Bush now begins to look more competent than before as a foreign policy performer. He fired Donald Rumsfeld, his defence secretary, and installed General David Petraeus as commander in Iraq. In late 2006 he weathered almost universal criticism by rejecting the report from James Baker, the former secretary of state, and the Iraq Study Group, which called for scaling down American troop numbers. Instead, he ordered a “surge”.

Today much of Iraq is calm, Al-Qaeda’s effectiveness there has dwindled and the United States has a credible plan for orderly withdrawal. Sadly, Britain has played little part in the allies’ reversal of fortune.

Overall, Brown has presided over an incredible shrinking foreign policy. His decision to avoid the opening festivities of the Beijing Olympics but to appear at the closing ceremony always looked like a pathetic compromise.

Again, Bush has shown him up. He is the first US president to visit an Olympics overseas. But he took the opportunity to criticise China strongly before arriving, attacking Beijing for denying religious freedom, a choice of topic which shows that he still understands the electorate back home, too. By contrast, Brown looks merely weak, afraid to attend but too anxious to stay away and with nothing to say about human rights.

Of course the issue with Brown is, as ever, one of personality. Blair liked foreign policy because he loved the glamour of shuttle diplomacy. He believed in his powers of persuasion. He enjoyed the company and the challenge of other world leaders. Bush and Sarkozy have the taste for it, too, and it is extraordinary how much personal relations still matter in the world of top-level diplomacy. Brown lacks the temperament. Over many years he has largely shunned the company of foreign counterparts. For example, he was always impatient to escape from meetings of finance ministers in Brussels.

Still, his government clearly understands that it must sound tough against Russia over Georgia. It is an enduring part of the Thatcher legacy that there are few votes in appeasing Moscow. Miliband hastened back from holiday to make suitably fierce noises. You do not need to be a cynic to appreciate how it might suit the foreign secretary to be visible during August, given that there could be a revolt against Brown’s leadership in the coming weeks. More than that, Miliband’s performance reminded us of days gone by when foreign policy was served up to the British public with oodles of charisma. He helped us to remember what we are missing.

David Cameron also understands that votes might be had by attacking Russia – and Brown’s ineffectiveness, too. He blamed Nato for failing to expedite Georgia’s application for membership of the alliance, arguing that this had “encouraged Russia to believe it could intimidate and bully because the West was divided and uncertain”.

The analysis seems faulty. The Americans have grown excited about Georgia because President Saakashvili is charismatic, US-educated and English-speaking. But while the fall of the iron curtain has altered the world’s political geography, it has not abolished it. In just a few years, and while the allies have been exhausting themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have extended our front line from the border between east and west Germany to the far boundaries of Hungary, Poland and the old Czechoslovakia. Would we really want to extend it to Georgia’s frontier with Russia, even if Georgia had a president less prone than this one to catastrophic misjudgments in handling his neighbour?

Cameron now advocates that we press on to include Georgia in our defence alliance, hoping that this would deter further Russian aggression. Two other consequences are at least as likely. One, that we would be bound to go to war for Georgia if hostilities resumed, or two, that sanity would prevail and we would refuse to do so. In that case we would destroy the credibility of Nato’s article 5 guarantee, which requires each ally to regard an attack on any member as though it were an attack on itself.

It was brave of Britain to guarantee Belgium in 1914 and Poland in 1939 and in both cases to wage war for years without counting the cost, but it scarcely seems opportune to overreach ourselves just now and pledge to defend at any price the land of Stalin’s birth. What size of allied army would make such a commitment credible? A war in Iraq was a “hard sell” for Blair. Cameron might find it even harder to make a convincing case for battling Russia in defence of Georgia.

Is it too much to hope that Britain can again find a role in foreign affairs of the scale achieved by Thatcher and Blair? It would need to be a middle ground between Brown, who has withdrawn from the world stage, and Cameron, who would regard an attack on Tbilisi as equivalent to Russians storming London.